Michelle Merrill ’06, ’12: Conducting Orchestras Across the U.S.

by Catherine Womack (’08)

Rehearsing and performing in the Meadows Symphony Orchestra was a revelatory, life-changing experience for Michelle Merrill.

In 2002, Merrill was a freshman saxophone performance student who had never performed in an orchestra. Growing up in the small East Texas town of Canton, her pre-college musical experiences were limited to private piano and saxophone lessons and playing in the high school band.

“But at SMU I got to play some of the big orchestral repertoire, like Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite,” she says. “I remember that first rehearsal with Dr. Phillips. I was completely in awe of sitting in the middle of this huge orchestra. I’d been in band and wind ensembles, but nothing as massive as an orchestra, and I just remember loving it and thinking it was one of the greatest things I’d ever been a part of.”

Merrill discovered two great loves in those orchestra rehearsals, which she attended even when she wasn’t performing.

“I met my husband at SMU –– he was a percussion major –– and I would go to rehearsal, in part, before we were dating, just to watch him play,” she says. “Then I just fell more and more in love with orchestral music, which is what set me on my path.”

Merrill graduated from SMU with degrees in saxophone performance and music education in 2006, and then returned in 2009 to pursue master’s degrees in conducting and music education. After graduating, she served as assistant conductor at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic and, later, at the Detroit Symphony.

michelle merrell
Michelle Merrill’s advice for Meadows students: “Practice as much as you can. Ask questions.”

Today Merrill juggles life as a wife and mother with a busy career. Her husband, Meadows alum Steve Merrill, just wrapped up his eighth season as principal percussionist with the Jacksonville (Fla.) Symphony, so that city serves as their home base. From there she flies to guest-conduct at orchestras and opera houses around the world –– in June she’s leading a performance of Bizet’s Carmen at San Francisco Opera –– and serves as music director of the Coastal Symphony of Georgia.

Merrill also has returned to Texas several times to serve as a cover conductor (“like being an understudy,” she says) for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In early May, she guest-conducted her first education concert with the DSO and was featured in her first subscription performance, leading three concerts devoted to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway tunes.

“It was a pleasure to work with Michelle for her DSO debut with the orchestra,” said Kim Noltemy, president and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “She had a great rapport with the musicians and led fantastic concerts.”

Merrill’s almost two-year-old son, Davis, often travels with her on work trips. “I’ve never met a baby with this crazy of a schedule,” she says with a laugh. “Thankfully he can ride in my lap right now, but soon he’ll be racking up his own sky miles.”

As a woman, Merrill is still somewhat of an anomaly in the male-dominated world of classical conducting. When discussing the gender imbalance in her profession, she says that she is “one of the really lucky ones,” in part because her mentors at SMU gave her unbiased encouragement.

“I know other female conductors my age who experienced a lot of prejudice in school. I may be unique in that I never encountered that. At Meadows, Paul Phillips and Jack Delaney never mentioned my gender. I always felt that they treated everyone equally, with no thought of race, creed or origin. Studying with teachers like that was extremely beneficial. I never had to have that experience of someone telling me ‘you can’t do this because you’re a girl.’”

Merrill says that diverse representation on the podium in terms of gender and race is important to her, and she’s happy to play a small part in shifting the demographics of her profession.

“I think it’s extremely important for people of all backgrounds to know that music isn’t just for the elite upper or even middle class, but for everyone. If you want to make music and perform, no matter who you are or where you’re from, go for it.”

Lead photo by Guy Rogers

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